The men who would not bow, budge or burn.
By Roger Carswell - ‘To be right with God has often meant to be in trouble.’ - A. W. Tozer
Nebuchadnezzar was a mighty monarch, a successful general who never lost a battle, who reigned in Babylon for 40 years. God had spoken to him in the past, and he had even appointed God’s people to high positions in the land. But he over-stepped the mark when he sought to create a unified, universal religion, building a lavish god for all to worship.
He was seeking to cement his conquered, diverse people into a common kingdom built on Babylonian values. However, in straying into worship he was crossing the Rubicon of his responsibility. In Daniel 3, the word ‘worship’ appears 11 times, and is linked to the coercive power of music. But music belongs to the Creator God, His angels and His people. It is an abuse of this wonderful gift from God if it is hijacked to manipulate people into idolatry or ungodliness.
In building the statue, Nebuchadnezzar was both deifying himself and attempting to show that there is no need for the true God. Everyone was commanded to worship the statue at the same time. The world has always been enamoured with one way of doing things. In fact, persecution by the state, in the realm of religion, has consistently been for the purpose of making people conform to its will. Nebuchadnezzar had a fixed determination to enforce his mandate. He failed to understand that no power on earth can command or coerce worship because it comes from the innermost part of a human and is not a mechanical response. God has given His commands and they take priority over the whims and wishes of any human being.
But the world’s systems and people cannot rest until everyone conforms to its commands. Twice in the chapter (vv 13 & 19) Nebuchadnezzar’s passion is portrayed by his features becoming distorted with rage. The musical instruments were playing (I wonder if the tune was ‘Everyone’s doing it, doing it, doing it ….’!) Almost everyone, including the majority of the Jews were bowing down and showing subservience to the statute, in total disregard of the second of the Ten Commandments. It is sad that so many ‘believers’ bowed. But it has always been the case that professing Christians – even evangelicals – have capitulated under pressure to profit out of conformity rather than suffer affliction with the people of God. There are very recent examples of this in our own country.
Only three people refused to bow (I’m sure Daniel would have joined them if he was in the vicinity). So why would Nebuchadnezzar be bothered with 3 non-conformists? Is there no scope for individuals and deeply held convictions, when most are blindly following the crowd? The three standing when all others were bowing would certainly be conspicuous. Such is their courage that the names of Shadrack, Meshack and Abed-Nego are mentioned 13 times in the one chapter. They were men of courage, conviction and godly grit, though the Chaldeans described them as ‘certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon’.
When Shadrack, Meshack and Abed-Nego were brought to Nebuchadnezzar they made no excuses, simply refusing to compromise or conform. They did not judge the situation by the king’s threats, or the heat of the flames of the furnace, or by the love of life, but rather by the everlasting God and the eternal life which He had promised. They spoke fearlessly to the King – it was as if they had come straight from the throne room of heaven.
Boldly they shared their conviction that their God was well able to deliver them from the flames of the furnace, but if He didn’t their trust in Him and obedience of Him would not falter. They would not bow down:
· King or no king,
· Command or no command,
· Custom or no custom,
· Fashion or no fashion,
· Life or death,
· Furnace or no furnace
By one act of faith Shadrack, Meshack and Abed-Nego became witnesses to the whole empire, and throughout history. They were men of faith, displaying no arrogance or presumption.
Martin Luther, the German monk whom God used as the catalyst of the Reformation 500 years ago, in all his loneliness, on his way to the Diet of Worms to appear before King Charles V and the Roman Prelate and all the princes assembled around said, “My cause shall be commended to the Lord for He lives and reigns, who preserved the three children in the furnace of the Babylonian king. If He is unwilling to preserve me, my life is a small thing compared with Christ. Expect anything of me except flight or recantation. I will not flee, much less recant. So may the Lord Jesus strengthen me.”
I love the fact that Luther did not ask for the Lord to deliver him, or even make it easy for him, but took the same line as Daniel’s friends all those centuries earlier, and of Peter and John in Acts 4 who prayed asking God to consider the threats they had received (v.29), then asked that they would speak with greater boldness (v.29b), and that God would miraculously stretch out His hand and do signs and wonders (v.30).
In situations of persecution there are the two possibilities: either deliverance or death. These were seen in reality in the early church. Both are recorded in the succession in Acts 12. Peter was delivered from a prison cell by an angel, whilst James was killed by the sword. The Lord was in control in both situations.
Nebuchadnezzar was so outraged by Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego’s stand he ordered that the furnace be heated up, which actually would have made it easier and death more speedy for the three if they were to die in the flames, but then rage is not rational! However, Nebuchadnezzar was powerless, for God was to save them in the flames not from the flames.
True faith is never impressed by crowds, swayed by superstitious, idolatrous ceremonies or even frightened by threats. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego believed in the after life. They were convinced that even if they were burned to a cinder as their lives were taken, they would be in a place where the hand of humans could not touch them, and society’s commands could not threaten them. They knew they would see the Lord ‘in the place reserved in heaven’ for them.
The world cannot cope with someone who says that it doesn’t matter if they live or die as long as they do not apostatise.
We know what happened. The Lord Himself came down and walked with them in the furnace. There was no smell of smoke, not a single hair of their head was singed. The ropes which bound them burned away, but their clothes remained unscathed. There was complete, visible deliverance, which of course, through the fickleness of the king led to them receiving further honours. In fact, so fickle was his leadership and his pendulum-swinging mind that Nebuchadnezzar decreed that any people who spoke against Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego’s God should be cut to pieces and their houses made an ash heap! (v.29). Such a decree is not our prerogative, nor our desire. We love the lost and pray for their salvation.
We know that the Book of Daniel is a prophetic book. Chapter 3, though an incident in history, undoubtedly pictures what has been repeated throughout the centuries. We know that dictatorships can be cruel, but then democracy can be as well, especially to those who don’t conform either to the majority or to agitating minorities.
The Judeo-Christian heritage which gave us our freedoms that we have enjoyed for many decades has now for the most part gone as consecutive governments have worked at eroding the foundations and the 10 Commandments that laid those foundations. The UK enjoyed an unusual 150 years of comparative gospel acceptance, but that has changed in the last fifty years. We are going back to ‘normal’ Christianity. We may not yet be experiencing persecution, but the pressure on Christians is mounting. Certainly, if we are looking for an easy life as Christians we have been born in the wrong era! Conservative evangelicals have been booed and heckled at the Church of England’s Synod; open air preachers are feeling the effect of daring to speak in pubic about traditional Christian beliefs; ordinary believers have been intimidated into silence about their faith in the work situation. In the place of a Christian consensus has emerged an intolerant form of humanism that boasts successive victories over the past fifty years. If we are honest, we as Christians have lost the cultural war, and the humanists in the media, government and education have won the minds and hearts of the masses.
The world won’t tolerate us, even though they pretend that toleration is supposed to be the value of society. As it hated the Lord Jesus, it will hate His followers. Intolerance always leads to hostility. This is well exemplified in the homosexual community who want everyone to not only accept their life choices, but to affirm them. Schools, which once were places of learning, creativity and imagination, have increasingly become systems of social engineering. The homosexual and transgender lobby want children to be taught that their desires, choices and activities as natural and normal. To disagree is to be called bigoted or homophobic. The goal is to silence our voice and eliminate our influence. The dogma is being enforced by the media and government employees who ‘are only obeying orders’. (Remember that phrase? It was used by a schools’ inspector recently). Elton John has even called for religion to be banned completely.
The world hates the light, because light exposes the wickedness of the world. But let us remember that the normal place for God’s people is in the furnace. Peter, possibly remembering what is recalled in Daniel 3, writes about the ‘fiery trial’ which will come upon us. (1 Peter 1:7). He had experienced the rage of the religious establishment when he preached Jesus. Dragged to their courts they were astonished at Peter and John’s courage. They took note that they had been with Jesus, though in fact, they were still with Him! When they were threatened the threats fell on deaf ears: a premature death did not frighten them for they feared Him who could destroy the soul rather than those who would destroy the body. They had to obey God rather than men.
In fact, through the first two centuries the early Christians hazarded their lives for Christ. They were a despised, illegal group. They knew that at any moment Imperial Rome might attempt to crush them out of existence. They worshipped secretly. They were thrown to the lions, burned at the stake and crucified. But this is not just ancient history. Missionaries of the more recent 18th and 19th centuries gave up so much of what that they and the world values in order to reach South America, African and Asian countries. They left home and loved ones, endured separation from their children, undertook hazardous journeys, which sometimes took months, felt hunger, experienced rugged hardship, imprisonment, flogging, were accused of being foreign devils as they went to countries where there were no doctors or medical aids. In doing so they gave up the prospect of salaried jobs as well as the security of the West with its system of justice.
Changing the metaphor, Jesus said we are sent as sheep among wolves, and yet we are taught that we are to ‘count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds.’ (James 1:2).
Seven times in just 10 verses in John 15 Jesus said that His followers would face hatred. The world’s system hates the Father, Jesus and us. Then Jesus gave 3 reasons why this is so:
v.19 – we are different from the world
v. 20 & 21 – we bear Christ’s name to the world
v. 22 & 24 – we expose the world’s sin
The day of the casual Christian is over, but we must teach ourselves and our children not to fear. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we trust in the Lord. God is with us, and no trial that we will face will be faced alone. In fact, as Peter Williams of Tyndale House in Cambridge put it, ‘We are not victims’. We are immensely blessed: the God of the universe is our loving Father; we are in His grip; He is watching over us; we have received salvation and been given righteousness; we have all ‘the exceeding great and precious promises’ of Scripture; the Holy Spirit lives within us; we are the apple of God’s eye, and our names are engraved upon the palm of His hand; we are seated in heavenly places with Christ Himself, and will spend eternity with Him.
In his book ‘Through many tribulations’ Scott Cunningham writes that there are five themes on persecution in the Book of Acts. He writes that:
Persecution of believers is part of God’s plan
Persecution is the rejection of God’s agents
The persecuted stand in continuity with God’s people
Persecution is an inevitable, integral consequence of following Jesus
Persecution is the occasion of a divining triumph
Opposition to the church doesn’t extinguish the church, but with a few sad exceptions, it normally fuels growth. That is what happened in the Book of Acts, so that in the final chapter the gospel has reached the capital of the empire and there are believers in Caesar’s palace.
Persecution means that we are blessed, not cursed. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12) Persecution leads to us knowing Jesus better, and we will find ourselves becoming more like Jesus. God does not waste pain or tears, but redeems them for our benefit and His glory.
In 1557 the Italian Christian, Algerius, was incarcerated in prison before his execution. Reflecting on his experience he wrote, ‘Who would have thought that in this dungeon I should find a paradise so pleasant. In a place of sorrow and death, there is tranquillity, hope and life. Where others weep, I rejoice.’
There are three conclusions I draw from this.
First, let us not be intimidated into silence about Jesus.
‘Let the redeemed of the Lord say so’ was true for the psalmist, and is apt for us. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and like Peter and John, surely we cannot but speak of the gospel, and if it all seems too costly, surely a fire burns within so that we cannot be silent. The greatest act of tyranny is to know the good news of Jesus and not share it; the greatest act of friendship is to introduce people to Jesus. He loved them, and died for them. ‘He is the propitiation for our sins, but not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world’, so they need to hear, whatever the cost to us.
Wycliffe Bible Translators have a chorus, ‘Every person in every nation in each succeeding generation has the right to hear the news that Christ can save.’ Even if they are hostile to the message, they need to hear, and it may be that God will use that hearing for them to be converted.
John Berridge was a rather unusual 18th century preacher. He was converted to Christ after working as a vicar for a number of years! Shortly after his conversion there was a travelling fair in his home town. Perhaps to avoid being seen, he avoided the crowds and walked a parallel back street. One of his parishioners saw him and simply said, “Ashamed on it, John; ashamed on it?”
Secondly, let us show compassion and love even to our enemies.
Jesus is the supreme example of practising what he preached, as He prayed for His enemies and showed no retaliation though He suffered so much. Can you imagine that people spat at the lovely Lord Jesus, but He loved them, and then bore their sin in His body on the cross.
Stephen was given grace to imitate His Saviour, and lovingly prayed that God would not charge his murderers.
I was challenged watching on YouTube American evangelist, Jay Smith, speaking to scores of Moslem men in Speakers’ Corner the Sunday after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. He endeared himself to men who were baying antagonism, and lovingly pointed them to Jesus.
Only Christians can love in a Christ-like way. I pray that God would enable me not to hate those who want to air-brush out of society the gospel, or even fellow-believers who have not stood for the Lord as I feel they should have. I am not to be characterised as someone insisting on my rights, showing rage and anger, but with unnatural grace oozing love to all seeking to ‘pluck some from the fire.’
Thirdly, the most powerful apologetic is a faithful life.
There was no other argument against Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego except they refused to commit idolatry. They would not compromise their worship of the one true God. Their lives were consistent. The challenge is for us to live lives characterised by love and good works so that people will have to lie to fault us, which is exactly what they did to Jesus. Though we are sinners, and often blunder, we want our lives and words to be happily married together. We cannot make the choice to either live or speak our Christianity – what God has joined together let no man put asunder! Our message is that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ and we qualify.
When through fiery trials your pathway shall lie
My grace, all sufficient, shall be your supply;
The flame shall not hurt you – I only design
Your dross to consume, and your gold to refine.
Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was sixty cubits and its width six cubits. He set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon. 2 And King Nebuchadnezzar sent word to gather together the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 3 So the satraps, the administrators, the governors, the counsellors, the treasurers, the judges, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces gathered together for the dedication of the image that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up; and they stood before the image that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. 4 Then a herald cried aloud: “To you it is commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, 5 that at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, you shall fall down and worship the gold image that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up; 6 and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.”
7 So at that time, when all the people heard the sound of the horn, flute, harp, and lyre, in symphony with all kinds of music, all the people, nations, and languages fell down and worshiped the gold image which King Nebuchadnezzar had set up.
Daniel’s Friends Disobey the King
8 Therefore at that time certain Chaldeans came forward and accused the Jews. 9 They spoke and said to King Nebuchadnezzar, “O king, live forever! 10 You, O king, have made a decree that everyone who hears the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, shall fall down and worship the gold image; 11 and whoever does not fall down and worship shall be cast into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. 12 There are certain Jews whom you have set over the affairs of the province of Babylon: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego; these men, O king, have not paid due regard to you. They do not serve your gods or worship the gold image which you have set up.”
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar, in rage and fury, gave the command to bring Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. So they brought these men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the gold image which I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready at the time you hear the sound of the horn, flute, harp, lyre, and psaltery, in symphony with all kinds of music, and you fall down and worship the image which I have made, good! But if you do not worship, you shall be cast immediately into the midst of a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you from my hands?”
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. 18 But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.”
Saved in Fiery Trial
19 Then Nebuchadnezzar was full of fury, and the expression on his face changed toward Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. He spoke and commanded that they heat the furnace seven times more than it was usually heated. 20 And he commanded certain mighty men of valour who were in his army to bind Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, and cast them into the burning fiery furnace. 21 Then these men were bound in their coats, their trousers, their turbans, and their other garments, and were cast into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. 22 Therefore, because the king’s command was urgent, and the furnace exceedingly hot, the flame of the fire killed those men who took up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego. 23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace.
24 Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he rose in haste and spoke, saying to his counsellors, “Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire?”
They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.”
25 “Look!” he answered, “I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
Nebuchadnezzar Praises God
26 Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.” Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. 27 And the satraps, administrators, governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them.
28 Nebuchadnezzar spoke, saying, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who sent His Angel and delivered His servants who trusted in Him, and they have frustrated the king’s word, and yielded their bodies, that they should not serve nor worship any god except their own God! 29 Therefore I make a decree that any people, nation, or language which speaks anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap; because there is no other God who can deliver like this.”
30 Then the king promoted Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego in the province of Babylon.